Saturday, January 10, 2009

Stop Worrying? I Hadn't Even Started

agnostibus national

Fear not, brave credit crunch commuters. As you sit in never-ending traffic queues at the rush hour, wondering if you'll have a job to go back to next week, a message of hope will pass you in the bus lane. That's right, stop worrying and enjoy life, because you'll probabably have no job.

No, sorry, I misread that, 'there probably is no God'. Well that's all your problems sorted then.

The agnostibus, or Atheist Bus Campaign to use the official title, was launched this week to great fanfare. £140,000, 800 buses and hundreds of ad spaces on the Tube are declaring the joyous news that there is probably no God. Responses have been many and varied, including Christian groups supporting the ads, arguimg that anything which gets people thinking about their beliefs is a good thing (I guess that's the 'no such thing as bad publicity' line). Meanwhile some atheists have lamented the 'probably', and there are worrying signs that the debate is being sidetracked by other matters.

Bus Stop

Complaints have already been made to the Advertising Standards Authority, predictably from Christian Voice but from more serious quarters too - see this submission by Clifford Longley, covered by Andrew Brown in the Guardian. Longley argues that the probability actually points towards the existence of God, and cites a number of prominent scientists, including Stephen Hawking, to back up his argument.

As yet, nobody has picked up on the other dubious claim in the advert, that faith causes you to worry and enjoy life less. For example, Richard Layard argues in his book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science that there are 6 major factors in human happiness which apply worldwide, one of which is belief in God. He writes about:

one of the most robust findings of happiness research: that people who believe in God are happier. At the individual level one cannot be sure whether belief causes happiness or happiness causes belief. But since the relation also exists at the national level, we can be sure that to some extent belief causes happiness” (p72)

It's a finding backed up by other research including this presented to the Royal Economic Society. In response to the latter, Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society, claimed "Happiness is an elusive concept, anyway - I find listening to classical music blissful and watching football repulsive.

"Other people feel exactly the opposite. In the end, it comes down to the individual and, to an extent, their genetic predispositions."

So according to the NSS your level of happiness, or enjoyment of life, is nothing much to do with whether you believe in God or not. This is

a) despite research suggesting otherwise (but when was the last time the NSS paid attention to anything which didn't support their agenda?)


b) a high-profile national advertising campaign saying exactly the opposite.


How Scary is Jesus?

So why are the adverts claiming that faith causes you to worry and stop enjoying life? Ariane Sherine, who thought up the campaign, argues: a new advertising campaign for Alpha Courses is running on London buses. If you attend an Alpha Course, you will again be told that failing to believe in Jesus will condemn you to hell. There's no doubt that advertising can be effective, and religious advertising works particularly well on those who are vulnerable, frightening them into believing. Religious organisations' jobs are made easier because there's no publicly visible counter-view to refute their threats of eternal damnation.

Anyone who's done the Alpha Course will wonder if they missed something - yes the course is designed to present the Christian faith and persuade people to try it out, but at no stage are people told 'believe this or go to hell'. And the adverts themselves are far from frightening: 'if God did exist, what would you ask?' runs the tagline, featuring very generalised questions like 'What am I doing here?' There's even a story doing the rounds of someone sitting in a very dull church who saw that poster, asked himself what he was doing there, and got up and left.

Any religion worth its salt will deal with questions of eternal destiny. Criticising religions for having an alternative scenario to spending the next life with God is like criticising water for being liquid. I very much doubt that Richard Dawkins would take kindly to spending eternity with the God he's spent his whole life trying to disprove. So if he's going to hate 'heaven', there has to be an alternative.

To be fair there are some crass religious adverts, such as those peculiar Authorised Version quotes which occasionally pop up at railway stations. But most religious advertising is aimed at raising money for charity (e.g. Christian Aid), and if anyone has been left quaking in fear by the Alpha ads then please leave a comment below.

Seatbelts Please

The 'stop worrying' tagline, conceived in those heady summer days of 2008 before the credit crunch, now looks woefully out of step with reality. There's even a photo at the official website which looks like two of the agnostibuses crashing into one another. This is going to be an interesting ride.

This is a cross-post from Touching Base, a column at the Wardman Wire.

1 comment:

  1. It was amusing to see these Agnostibuses for the first time today in the centre of Oxford, at Carfax in the centre right next to the university church. In some ways this must be the most religious city in the country, but it is of course also Dawkins' home town so no surprise that they appeared there. I haven't seen any in my own more average home town of Chelmsford, just new Alpha ads on the buses.